Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Count Zero

by William Gibson

When the body transforms at an exponential rate, how long before the mind is also irrevocably changed, before it is forcibly shifted into unknown stratospheres? Will the mind even change? Or will old neural traditions remain steadfast amidst the chimera of our new technologically integrated, digital bodies. Perhaps it is a further matter of circumstances? Conditions? William Gibson’s early short stories, collected in “Burning Chrome,” as well as his first novel, “Neuromancer,” concern themselves with a futurology of the body – what are the stresses technological progress will place on our bodies and the notion of a physical ‘naturalness?’ He next extended this discussion into matters of the mind, identity and humanness. 1986’s “Count Zero” feels very much like a second novel; it is a reiteration and reinvestigation of a speculative vision through the extension of perspective and focus. That is, Gibson furthers the argument of his earlier work, by actively concentrating upon notions of mind, family and personality. As a craftsman, William Gibson also pushes his practice. “Neuromancer” was told from one perspective, that of Case, a console cowboy and high-tech pastiche of noir tropes of masculinity. “Count Zero,” on the other hand, rotates through three POVs, each of them coming from different classes and one of them, significantly, a woman. While “Neuromancer” told one story over the course 271 pages, “Count Zero” tells three interlocking narratives over 244 pages. Each thread, then, is allotted only about 80 pages.

What is the result of such a three-way division of the narrative? First of all, the depth of Case’s perspective is sacrificed for a greater breadth as the reader’s attention is divided between three protagonists. Instead of a deep and singular sympathy with one protagonist, the reader is presented with a wider view of a global identity. We are first introduced to Turner, “…a mercenary, his employers vast corporations warring covertly for the control of entire economies,” hired to shift Christopher Mitchell, “…the man who made biochips work…,” from one multinational, Maas Biolabs, to another, Hosaka. Next we encounter Marly Krushkhova, “…the disgraced former operator of a tiny Paris gallery...” hired by the extravagantly rich Josef Virek to discover the artist behind a mysterious series of Cornell-like boxes. The novel’s third narrative thread follows suburbanite Bobby Newmark, the self-styled Count Zero of the title, who “…only had his little Ono-Sendai deck for a month, but… already knew he wanted to be more than just some Barrytown hotdogger.” During what appears to be a fatal first run into the matrix, Bobby is saved as “…something leaned in, vastness unutterable, from beyond the most distant edge of anything he’d ever known or imagined, and touched him.” Much of the initial excitement of the book is fuelled by our questions as to how these three divergent narratives connect, as well as how the greater narrative of “Count Zero” relates to the earlier novel, “Neuromancer.” It is perhaps ultimately more interesting, though, to consider why Gibson has spent so much energy constructing these vast interdependencies and confluences.

The novel’s first real narrative convergence occurs on page 115. Bobby is accompanying Lucas, a cyber-mystic and hardware-dealer, into the neon miasma of the Sprawl. Lucas advises the inexperienced hotdogger that they are going to meet some who is “…far more than he seems. Even if he were nothing more than he seems, you would owe him a degree of respect. If you want to be a cowboy, you’re about to meet a landmark in the trade.” This, we soon discover, is the Finn, the weasel-faced tech-guru from “Neuromancer.” What a thrilling moment for fans of the previous novel, but Gibson subverts the reader’s reassuring shock of familiarity. Remember, the Finn, in his actuality, appears only briefly in Gibson’s first novel – it is his image that lingers throughout that text. The larval AI, Wintermute, configures a personality template of the Finn in order to communicate with Case. Our familiarity as the reader with the Finn, then, is of a very real artifice. Our expectations of a through-line are thwarted subtly, as our memories of the Finn mingle with those of Wintermute as Finn. Wintermute communicated with Case as a Wintermute/Finn composite; the reader recovers the Finn from memories of a similarly disputed collision.

In another of the novel’s narrative threads, Turner is caught in a disfiguring close-range explosion. His employers hire a bio-surgical team that “…cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark cartilage polysac-charides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green.” Another irony. “Count Zero” opens with an image of physical disfigurement even as it investigates psychological depths. Turner flees to his childhood home with Angie, the daughter of bio-technician Christopher Mitchell. Turner’s brother, Rudy greets them, “You look different… the same, but different.” Turner replies that he had “Reconstruction. They had to build it back from records.” Ah! So here we see the image made flesh – the ambiguity of authenticity in the face of an actualizing artifice.

How do these physically substantiated replications of “reality” reflect upon the state of mind and identity in Gibson’s future? Marly’s beneficiary, Josef Virek has “…been confined for over a decade to a vat…” He physically exists as “…four hundred kilograms of rioting cells [walled] away behind surgical steel in a Stockholm industrial park.” Yet he retains a virtual similitude, or rather, a frozen image. When Marly encounters Virek in cyberspace, she instantly recognizes him, since “his features had been vaguely familiar to her all her life. Now she remembered, for some reason, a photograph of Virek and the King of England.” In addition to the humor of England still possessing a royalty even after a nuclear war has ravaged most of Europe, this small detail is important because, yet again, authenticity is conveyed through an image, moreover, a fabricated one.

Well, then, what is authenticity anyway, in lieu of a global culture of replication and image? Does the concept of authenticity even exist, or has it simply been repositioned? And if it has indeed been, let’s say reconfigured, in a society of artifice, then what does it mean to be authentically human? This line of questioning leads to what, for me at least, is the vital question at the heart of “Count Zero:” what does it mean to be human in a transhuman, or post-human world? Look at Josef Virek. In conversation with Marly, her friend Andrea offers that “If you believe the journalists, he’s the single wealthiest individual period. As rich as some zaibatsu. But that’s the catch, really: is he an individual? In the sense that you or I am? No.” This echoes Gibson’s sentiment in “Neuromancer” that the rich are no longer quite human. Look at the warm humanity of Andrea though, as she then asks Marly, “Aren’t you going to eat that?” Virek and the concept of the “Mass Man” provide one possibility regarding the ultimate outcome of humanity in the face of technological progress – a dispersal into a riotous superstructure. Marly becomes increasingly paranoid following her employment by Virek. As she walks the streets of Paris, she imagines “… a structure, a machine so large that [she is] incapable of seeing it. A machine that surrounds [her], anticipating [her] every step.” That machine, perhaps, is Virek – though it is just as easily the totality formed following the fusing of Neuromancer and Wintermute. More ironies.

Gibson posits Virek as a prototype, or failed attempt, at what still remains an undecided fate for humanity or post-humanity. The Tessier-Ashpools of the previous novel can be seen as “… a very late variant on traditional patterns of aristocracy, late because the corporate mode doesn’t really allow for an aristocracy.” Another failed future. “Demons” have arisen in cyberspace following the two AIs fusing, “spirits” who have adopted identities from Vodun culture and assumed names like Legba or Baron Samedi. These “spirits” interact with the next generation of humanity, represented here by Angie and Bobby, a generation that is interfaced even more fully with technology, with the matrix than Turner or “Neuromancer”s Case are. Angie can jack into the matrix without a cyberdeck or any hardware whatsoever. The biological and the technological collide, as in the biochips her father developed for Maas Biolabs.

Marly eventually travels beyond Earth’s atmosphere, boarding a junk satellite composed of refuse from the Tessier-Ashpool’s now-decimated orbital palace, Straylight. She encounters what was Wintermute and Neuromancer. It explains to Marly that “Once, for a brilliant time, time without duration, I was everywhere as well… But the bright time broke. The mirror was flawed. Now I am only one… There are others, but they will not speak to me. Vain, the scattered fragments of myself, like children. Like men… They plot with men, my other selves, and men imagine they are gods…” This, then, again posits that what Virek has become and also the AI’s totalized identity, are two possible futures for humanity. Virek explains to Marly that many things “…are perpetrated in my name.” Note the biblical tone of this, as well as the techno-theology of Neuromancer/Wintermute, whom the Wig, an insane former console cowboy, believes is God. Also note the gnostic overtones, the negative references to mirrors and images. Virek continues, “Aspects of my wealth have become autonomous, by degrees. At times, they even war with one another. Rebellion in the fiscal extremities.” One must note the importance of boundaries here and throughout Gibson’s novels. This reminds me of a wonderful quote by Roland Barthes, which is admittedly taken here out of context: “…it is always on the frontiers of the two planes that creation has a chance to occur.”

“Count Zero” possesses two endings, another emphasis of Gibson’s upon plurality, on humanity’s necessary fragmentation and identity’s furtherance of a new multiplicity. Early on in the novel, Bobby is informed “Plural’s same as the singular.” Yes, that is the point made here, isn’t it? No, only one of the points. Let’s look at the novel’s two endings – one within the public sphere and one in the private. The first is viewed from an external, the second an internal perspective. See how the novel suddenly shifts outside the three perspectives so far established, and instead localizes itself in a totally public exterior. We stumble upon a light lunch between two people who we learn are involved in the simstim industry- a unit director and a star. They are both introduced in the text by their job descriptions before being given individual names, the unit director is named Roberts, the simstim star is Tally Isham, who was mentioned earlier along the peripherals of “Neuromancer.” They in turn are looking down at a pool, where an up-and-coming simstim star and her bodyguard are sunbathing. This is Angie and Bobby.

The second, and final, conclusion to “Count Zero” is told from the much more intimate perspective of Turner, who has since returned to his childhood home, where his brother Rudy had recently been killed by Turner’s former agent, Conroy. Turner has formed a makeshift nuclear unit with Sally, Rudy’s lover, and her son. He has retired and turned his back on the perpetual recycling of his life as mercenary. Turner has retired to a private, intimate spot, a place it is surprising to see in the world Gibson has crafted over the course of his first two novels. This is, ironically then, the dream of all cowboys and detectives at the end of the western or noir novel – to retire following one last job. What, then, does this say about mind, humanity, and identity in the face of future’s onrush?


Anonymous said...

Great essay! As someone who read "Count Zero" before reading the other two, I appreciated learning the meaning of certain connections between this an Neuromancer. Some of these clearly were perceived as conceptual gaps and it feels good to have them filled in.

John Millthorpe said...

Great read